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Japanese sake goes global, intoxicating many

From sommeliers to master brewers, the drink is winning devotees abroad

Foreign tourists check out bottles of Japanese sake at a department store in Ginza, Tokyo. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi) 

TOKYO -- Sake, also called nihonshu, is rapidly going global, much as sushi has, with the value of Japan's annual exports doubling in the past five years to a record-high 22.2 billion yen ($200 million) in 2018.

The number of sake drinkers is rising sharply around the world, partly on the strength of recommendations by sommeliers at high-end restaurants overseas. After getting a taste of sake in their own countries, many people come to Japan for a deeper dive.

But for those truly bitten by the sake bug, sipping is not enough. More people from overseas are learning the ancient art of sake brewing in Japan; some are helping to bring the tipple to the world.

Julie Govaert, a Belgian information technology consultant, is a fan. She recently visited a sake bar called "twelv." in Tokyo's well-heeled Nishi-Azabu district. Govaert said, "I was fascinated by sake at a Japanese restaurant in New York called Kyo-Ya. Then I came to Tokyo."

The bar offers brands that are produced without using agrochemicals, or in a traditional manner, under the "bio" theme. Against a backdrop of techno music, shimmering geometric patterns on the ceiling, and cylindrical, black pendant lights. Govaert heaps praise on Kikuhime Yamahai Junmai Namatzume Genshu, a rich, full-bodied brew made in Hakusan, a city on the Sea of Japan coast in Ishikawa Prefecture.


Julie Govaert, left, a Belgian information technology consultant, enjoys a tipple at the popular sake bar "twelv." in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

Norihiro Takamizuma, the bar's owner, seemed surprised by the depth of her knowledge. "Even Japanese people are regarded as connoisseurs if they can understand the taste," he said.

She is not the only non-Japanese in the know there. Dmitry Bulakh, a sake sommelier at the bar, was from Moscow. He once finished third in the World Sake Sommelier Competition and explains to foreign customers the history of sake and its flavors.

In the West, more sommeliers are recommending sake as an accompaniment to fine cuisine. In 2017, Keiichiro Miyagawa, a Japanese sommelier living in Paris, launched Kura Master, a sake competition in which prominent Japanese breweries showcase their products.

The judges are local celebrities. Serving as chairman of the judging committee is Xavier Thuizat, a well-known sommelier at Hotel de Crillon, a five-star hotel. "Sake that has an elegant taste can become part of the world of gastronomy," he said.

The pioneer among overseas sake competitions is the International Wine Challenge, one of the world's biggest wine events, held in London every year.

Toshie Hiraide, a sake expert who instructs Japanese diplomats promoting the product, negotiated with the IWC to create a sake division for the competition in 2007. Among the brews that have been awarded the top prize so far is Ichiro, a premium daiginjo sake.

Ichiro is made by Dewazakura Sake Brewery in Tendo, Yamagata Prefecture. The president of a Swedish logistics company, who also serves as an IWC judge, liked it so much he began importing it.

Xavier Thuizat, a prominent sommelier in Paris, is also well versed in sake.

Shinya Tasaki, president of the Japan Sommelier Association, is another driving force behind sake's accelerating globalization. Tasaki created the Sake Diploma qualification system in 2017 while serving as president of the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale.

"It is difficult to make some ingredients used in French cuisine go well with wine, but chefs in Paris are learning that even such ingredients pair well with sake," Tasaki said.

"To globalize sake, it is important to make it known widely that sake goes well with foreign dishes, as well as Japanese ones," said Yasuyuki Kishi, an associate professor at Niigata University.

A surprising ambassador for the drink is Hidetoshi Nakata, who was once a member of Japan's national soccer team. Nakata founded the Japan Craft Sake Company in Tokyo's Minato Ward.

His right-hand woman is Rebekah Wilson-Lye, who is in charge of the company's international marketing. She also serves as a sake judge for the IWC. Wilson-Lye stresses the importance of choosing local distributors carefully to ensure the quality of the products shipped overseas. Proper temperature control is crucial because some sakes are more delicate than white wine, she said.

Even as sake finds its way to new markets abroad, more non-Japanese are getting into the business in Japan. There are around 1,400 sake breweries in the country and the number of people from overseas working in the industry is rising.

Philip Harper, a graduate of the University of Oxford in England, was a trailblazer. He is managing director at Kinoshita Brewery in Kyotango, Kyoto Prefecture. The brewery dates back to 1842. Harper is the company's first foreign toji (master brewer).

Darryl Cody, a native of the U.S. state of Utah, is in charge of shibori (squeezing), an important part of sake production at Watanabe Sake Brewery in Hida, Gifu Prefecture. Cody said his dream is to see a U.S. president drink one of his brews. Watanabe Sake Brewery began making the Cody's Sake series three years ago. The label features the U.S. flag and a ninja. Cody's Sake is exported to the U.S. and the U.K.

Cody studied human engineering at graduate school and worked as a sports trainer. After marrying a Japanese woman, he came to Japan, settled in Hida, her hometown, and encountered sake.

American Darryl Cody devotes himself to his craft at Watanabe Sake Brewery in Hida, Gifu Prefecture.

Cody now devotes his life to sake. When he first came to Japan in 2006, he struggled with the language, especially local dialects. But Hisanori Watanabe, the president of the brewery, advised the serious Cody to relax a little more, saying that laughing is also important. There is a maxim among sake brewers: Wajo ryoshu. "Harmony brews good sake and good sake brews harmony."

Richard Geoffroy, who served as chef de cave, or cellar master, for 28 years at storied French Champagne label Dom Perignon, has also fallen in love with sake making. He plans to begin construction of a brewery in Tateyama, Toyama Prefecture this year.

Referring to Geoffroy's move, the Japan Sommelier Association's Tasaki said: "There are strong hopes for sake production based on the concept of terroir that cherishes rice in Toyama." Terroir, an idea common in winemaking, refers to the unique characteristics of a place that give a food or drink its distinctiveness.

Obata Sake Brewery on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture takes a hands-on approach to spreading the sake gospel. It has refurbished and converted an old elementary school into a "school brewery" and has invited trainees from Spain and elsewhere to learn the art.

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